Uncertainties surrounding United States President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and his stance on the South China Sea dispute may create instability in Asia, panelists at the World Economic Forum said in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday (20/01).
It remains to be seen whether Trump would follow through on his election rhetoric of withdrawing the United States from security alliances in Asia, or even create a conflict with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea, which sees trade of more than $5.3 trillion passing through it annually. Also, many would like to see whether Trump would push forward with his anti-Muslim rhetoric that could create a backlash in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and an ally the United States could not afford to lose in the Asia-Pacific region.
Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, is more worried about global security with Trump serving as US president.
“I’m not that sanguine on Asia’s future. President Trump’s administration would be the biggest game changer. If he puts his rhetoric into action, it could unravel the United States’ relationships with China and Southeast Asian countries,” Yoichi said.
Fellow panelist Lee Geun, who is a lecturer at South Korea’s Seoul National University, said the uncertainty of Trump’s policy in Asia, especially in East Asia, has replaced North Korea’s plan to strengthen its nuclear arsenal, and the territorial dispute between South Korea, Japan and China as major security risks in the region.
Others however, preferred to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.
“We should take him seriously, but not to take him literally. So, let us judge his policies by his actions, rather than by his words,” Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakhrisna said.
Indonesia’s Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan concurred with Balakhrisna, saying that Trump was unlikely to put his anti-Muslim rhetoric into action as he is about to make a billion-dollar investment in Indonesia.
“We still need to see what President Trump will do in the next month, but it is impossible to see Trump raising his anti-Muslim agenda when he invests in Indonesia. It is one indication I do not believe. You can’t do that; it would hurt your own personal business,” Luhut said.
South China Sea
Luhut said that during his time coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, he held a meeting with Chinese government officials in Beijing to discuss the South China Sea issue.
“Indonesia’s stance is very clear; we only recognize China’s nine-dash line as stipulated in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Luhut said. He added that Indonesia’s stance on the matter should be respected by other countries.
Luhut said Indonesia was not going to negotiate on maritime sovereignty as the government’s effort to combat illegal fishing became the main point on the country’s agenda.
“We take care of this very much,” he said.
Rex Tillerson, candidate US secretary of state, recently made international headlines when he suggested a blockade to prevent China from accessing its artificial islands in the South China Sea. This may raise tensions between the two countries and risk a large-scale war.
“Nobody wants to see an open war in the area through which billions of dollars of trade pass every year, as nobody would win,” Luhut said.
He said Indonesia already maintains security at home, with the country now focusing more on external threats, particularly the South China Sea issue. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) can play an active role in mediating between rival parties in the dispute.
“However, we don’t want to take sides. Let Indonesia be independent in this particular issue,” Luhut said.
“We do not want to see power projection – a military term for acting aggressively towards an opponent – either by the US or China, as we want to see a peaceful solution over there [in the South China Sea],” Luhut said.
Balakhrisna said even if China does not to back down on the dispute, it also does not want to go to war as it has done well over the past years.
“Everyone just wants economic development and good business prospects while us [in Asean] want stability and a bit of predictability,” Balakhrisna added, echoing Luhut’s view on taking sides.